Category Archives: Local Food Systems

Relocalize the food system to support democracy!

Primary_neg_4colI wrote in an earlier blog “the global food system will always favor large, financially efficient businesses which exploit people, undermine democracy, erode community, and degrade natural resources in order to maximize profits.”  I have argued that for agriculture to be sustainable, we must relocalize our food production and distribution systems.  This resulted in lots of discussion, not all in agreement.

regionalfood

Several of the critics of my “strong relocalization” position focused on the efficiency and effectiveness of non-local food production and distribution systems from an economic and environmental perspective.  And I generally agreed with the criticism.  But sustainability must also include a strong commitment to social justice, and relocalization can support this critical goal by strengthening community and fostering democracy.

My thinking has been influenced by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, who wrote in Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy “the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us.”  Sandel boldly states that today “the public philosophy by which we live cannot secure the liberty it promises, because it cannot inspire the sense of community and civic engagement that liberty requires.”

life-is-goodThe loss of community which undermines democracy is the product of a worldview built on an individualistic understanding of the good life.   This understanding was born during a period of industrialization, fueled by seemingly inexhaustible petroleum supplies, and guided by a political theory that assumed continued economic growth is a moral imperative.

I”m not suggesting that EVERYTHING needs to be grown locally (bananas are difficult to grow in New England)  but rather that we need to move in the direction of relocalization.  And of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with the efficiency of regional, national and even global businesses if they are not exploitative. Rather than maximizing profits for the financial benefit of stockholders, even multi-nationals could optimize profits for a network of locally owned and managed small businesses.  This would provide the efficiency and effectiveness of a large organization while supporting a local economy and build community.

So, what’s the problem?

Rapid industrialization in the early 1900’s along with the railroads and national telegraph system was expected to connect the nation more closely than ever before.   However the connectivity created by industrialization and communication was based more on financial dependency than on a shared vision of a common national good.  Interconnectedness in corporations of ever-increasing size and power, is not the same as a sense of community which in fact, diminished rapidly during the first half of the 20th century.

sandelThe progressives of the era were mixed on their response to rapid growth of business and subsequent loss of community.  Sandel wrote: “some sought to preserve self-government by decentralizing economic power and thus bringing it under democratic control. Others considered economic concentration irreversible and sought to control it by enlarging the capacity of national democratic institutions. Theodore Roosevelt sought to regulate big business, increase the power of the national government, and to build a shared vision through his new nationalism.”

Herbert Croly in The Promise of American Life stated that America needed a stronger central government so that people would feel more a part of a national community.  This political theory however, did not promote citizenship or democratic ideals but rather a utilitarian view of continued economic growth as the dominant shared American value.  Economists and political leaders believed that the primary goal for America was to promote a rapidly rising total output of goods and services and full employment.  While this goal is important to the economy, it was not sufficient in itself to prevent the demise of community and the decay of democracy.

Where do we go from here?

It is surely difficult to imagine a return to a strong civic culture at a national level. Sandel wrote; “from Aristotle’s polis to Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, the civic conception of freedom found its home in small and bounded places, largely self-sufficient, inhabited by people whose conditions of life afforded the leisure, learning, and commonality to deliberate well about public concerns.” A national community is just too big to provide a sense of meaning and purpose that lasts.  We need to connect to something that feels more like a hometown.

People frustrated with national government need opportunities to participate in local institutions that allow more civic engagement in order to feel a sense of agency and control of their own lives.  Local government, colleges and community organizations can be instrumental in both building a local food system as well as providing individuals with a sense of meaning and purpose.  However according to Sandel, current efforts to relocalize the economy face the same “… predicament American politics faced in the early decades of the twentieth century. Then as now, new forms of commerce and communication spilled across familiar boundaries and created networks of interdependence among people in distant places. But the new interdependence did not carry with it a new sense of community.”

What railroads, telegraph wires and national markets were to a former time, satellite hookups, cyberspace, and global markets are to ours – instruments that link people without making them neighbors.  While we need local connections, communities cannot be strong in isolation and small businesses cannot survive without understanding global market forces.  We need a global network of local food and farms.

Relocalization must be global!

I’ve written previously about a proposal to create the Food Commons, a national network of integrated local food production, processing and distribution subsystems.  When we connect this idea with the global food movement called Food Sovereignty, we might begin to imagine a global Food Commons network with governance dispersed throughout rather than centralized in a corporate headquarters.  Sandel, writing about political governance, seems to support this idea, which I think can be applied to business as well.  He writes that only a management system; “…that disperses sovereignty both upward and downward can combine the power required to rival global market forces with the differentiation required of a public life that hopes to inspire the allegiance of its citizens.”

The purpose of the corporation is to generate profit for investors at all legal (and sometimes illegal) cost.  When economic power is concentrated in a few multi-national corporations, it not only erodes the other two sustainability objectives (environmental integrity and social justice) but creates a political situation that undermines democracy.

A network of locally-owned food businesses managed collectively would support vibrant communities, enhance democracy, and provide engaged customers with high quality food grown locally as well as from a distance.  I believe a global network of collectively managed and locally-owned food businesses has the best chance of being sustainable.

To move toward sustainability however, we must reverse the direction of industrialization (centralization, specialization and globalization).  We can do this by getting involved in local organizations and government, supporting local businesses, and encouraging public investment in community priorities.

For agriculture to be sustainable and democratic, we must relocalize – globally!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.

Local food: lets get serious – NOW!

Although the demand for locally grown food has increased over the past 20 years, most people still shop at the major food chains.  I suspect this is because we live busy lives and supermarkets provide a full range of products year round, are convenient with good parking, and are open every day.  Not everyone is willing to join a CSA or stop at the local farmers market.  But given the continued pressure of global climate change, peak oil, and economic stress, I think we need to get really serious about building a vibrant local food system – NOW!

We need to build a Food Commons, a national network of local and regional food production, processing and distribution options to complement and partially replace the current corporate food system, which is showing signs of being in serious trouble.  According to the authors of the Food Commons proposal, “…the antidote to the unsustainable path we are on is a 21st-century re-envisioning and re-creation of the local and regional food systems that pre-dated the current global industrial food system.”

The Food Commons Proposal

The proposed national Food Commons would consist of three intersecting components:

  • Food Commons Banks to provide financial services to food system enterprises, producers and consumers.
  • Food Commons Hubs to aggregate and distribute local and regional food, create and coordinate regional markets, and provide services to communities and local food enterprises.
  • Food Commons Trusts to own farm land and food system infrastructure in perpetual trust for the benefit of all citizens.

If you are interested in the details and proposal, see; “The Food Commons: Building a National Network of Localized Food Systems.”  The remainder of this post will give some examples showing that we are already moving in this direction.

The Food Commons Trust

I’m pleased to be a board member of the North Amherst Community Farm, which is an example of a Food Commons Trust.  NACF is a community group that was organized in 2006 to save one of the last working farms in North Amherst, Massachusetts.  Private donations, town and state funds were acquired to protect this farm from development.  It is now leased to an organic vegetable and livestock farm, Simple Gifts Farm, which provides food to the community through a successful CSA and local farmers markets.  You are invited and encouraged to help us support this project.

The Food Commons Bank

We have an example of this sort of financial institution emerging in our region called the Common Good Bank.   This is a bank created to serve the common good.  According to their mission statement, by “common good” they mean:

“First and foremost, the well-being of each and every individual person, including adequate food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, community, satisfying work, rest, and self-determination, empowering those in need.

“Second, peace and justice — a spirit of cooperation and community between all people, with compassionate sharing of the world’s resources.

“Third, a healthy, sustainable planet, with clean air, clean water, clean earth and a healthy and diverse population of animals and plants.”

The first ever Common Good Festival will be held in Amherst, MA on July 10, 2011 to raise awareness of Common Good Finance, a nonprofit organization working to bring economic democracy to communities in Western Massachusetts.

Other examples are being developed, but one way you can help support better financing for the local food system is to write to the Farm Credit Administration (FCA) asking them to direct FCS banks to be more responsive to the credit needs of small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers producing for local and regional food markets.  The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a web page to help those willing to write a letter.

The Food Commons Hub

I am not aware of any local food hub as envisioned by the Food Common proposal, but there is interest in developing such a project in our region.  The Feed Northampton Study produced by the Conway School of Landscape Design proposed neighborhood based “food hub” facilities to provide; commonly-owned packaging, cooling, processing, waste management and education for farms in the area.  The report includes a proposal to redevelop a local fairgrounds as a food hub.

What can you do?

The global food system will always favor large, financially efficient businesses which exploit people, undermine democracy and erode community, and degrade the land in order to maximize profits.  If we want to build a vibrant and sustainable food system, we need public investments in a local production, processing and distribution infrastructure (similar to the investment in the national highway system).

At the same time, we need to integrate the drive for economic growth with a concern for the environment and a commitment to social justice.  Unless we are willing to pass regulations and tax laws mandating more sustainable practices in the global marketplace (which is unlikely), this will require a major public investment in infrastructure that will help us relocalize our food system and move in a more sustainable direction.

In addition to creating a Food Commons project in your own area or supporting the Food Commons project with a donation, there are lots of local government, college, and non-profit organizations working on local food projects you can help.   If you want to take personal action in your own backyard, you can begin by growing your own food.  To see more of my own projects and activities, please go to Just Food Now or join my Facebook Group Just Food Now in Western Massachusetts.  But please do join us……

Lets get serious about local food – NOW!

 

Just food now: taking personal responsibility

In my last blog, I presented some ideas on how local government, colleges and community groups might help to strengthen the local food economy.   In this blog, I will share some ideas on how individuals can contribute directly to the long-term health of local food systems by changing our behavior.

But wait you say…..  how can individuals make a difference when government, corporations and university research and education all support industrial agriculture?

Well, lets begin with the assumption that investments in a local food economy make sense in the long term as we face increasing stress to the industrial food economy.   Then if we look at the systemic structure of large systems like corporations and government, we see that their behavior is governed by powerful mental models that discourage their leaders from acting on a long-term perspective.   Let ask…. “who among our leaders has a planning horizon that allows them to think in the long term?”   Afterall…..

  • those we elect to the U.S. Senate want to get elected every 6 years,
  • the President of the United States wants to get elected (or be succeeded by their own party) every four years,
  • those we elect to the House of Representatives want to get elected every 2 years,
  • most local officials run for election every 2 or 4 years, and
  • corporate leaders must show increased profits every quarter (3 months) to be successful!

Given our expectation for immediate results, how can any of these leaders take actions that will pay off in the long term and expect to remain in leadership?   WE have to begin to change the mental models governing western culture by changing our own behavior FIRST!

As I suggested in my last blog, if WE START A “LOCAL FOODS PARADE” (based on new mental models), these leaders will jump right up front and carry our flag!

Leadership of the local foods movement is in our hands!

While we need to continue to work with local government, businesses, colleges and community groups, we also need to take action as individuals to directly support local food and begin to shift mental models.  Here are a few things we might do now:

  1. If you live in an apartment, plant a few vegetables or herbs in window boxes or on the patio. And of course walk or bike to one of our farm stands or farmers markets to buy local food whenever possible.  Better yet, join a CSA!
  2. If you live in a suburban neighborhood, tear up that lawn and just grow food now!  And then teach your neighbors how to grow more food.  Can and freeze as much as possible, and share it with your neighbors.
  3. If you are in less populated part of town and maybe have a large yard (like some owners of “McMansions”), grow a large garden with fruit trees.   And don’t forget  hens, chickens and rabbits for meat, perhaps a milking goat, and bees!
  4. If you live on a farm, grow more food crops (for people).  Much of the farmland in New England is used to produce hay (some for cows, but much for riding horses).  Is this the best use of farm land?
  5. If you are responsible for a public building, grow food on the rooftop.  This not only produces food but makes heating and cooling the building less expensive.   Or look to re-configure parking lots and other open areas with raised beds such as the urban organiponicos in Cuba.

And no matter where you live, think about ways we can make food farming a more attractive lifestyle. Farmers (especially those who don’t own land) struggle with the economics of a food system that keeps prices artificially low through public subsidies and failing to pay for externalities. If we want more local food, we need to help these farms compete more effectively within the global food system.

We all need to begin by imagining possibilities and then getting to work in our backyards, neighborhoods, local government and educational institutions.  There are plenty of examples of ways in which you can get involved in creating a sustainable food system.

Individual Actions

1. Join the Slow Food movement, which “unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”

2. Buy Fair Trade food products which ensure that farmers receive a fair price for their labor.   And why not try out this cell phone app to determine which products are “healthy, ethical and green.

3. Support Bioregionalism which encourages us to get our food from an area defined loosely by natural boundaries and distinct cultural human communities.

4. Work for clear public commitment to a nutritious diet for all, fair wages and working conditions for farm labor, and a living wage for farm owners.  Share the idea of a local Food Commons with your neighbors.

5. And perhaps the most effective way to support local food is to begin to uncouple your diet from the global industrial food economy starting with avoiding all factory farmed animal products such as eggs, milk, meat, and cheese.   Try to increase the number of food products you buy from farmers you know!

What else?   What would you add to this list?

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For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And for those of you who still wonder if one person can make a difference, please see an essay I wrote on this topic called “Saving the world – one clothespin at a time.”

Just food now; public opportunities and responsibilities

One of my previous posts described how the modern industrial food system is in “collapse.”  In this post, I offer some ideas on how town government, local colleges and community organizations can get involved to .…

“just grow food – and – grow food justly.”

While the USDA, the American Farm Bureau and national commodity groups like to talk about promoting local agriculture, most of their policies are more supportive of “big agriculture.”   If we are going to “grow food justly” we might want to look closer to home.  We need to start in our own backyards and neighborhoods and then work with town government, colleges and community organizations to strengthen the local food system.

This blog focuses on my experience working in my hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Local Opportunities

One of the mantras from “big ag” is that you can’t feed the world with local food.  Well lets think again.  First, we need to ask what do we mean by local?  For a New Englander the answer may be obvious, as there is a strong sense of regional identity that stops at the Hudson River.  One of my favorite stories is of an 18th century tax collector from New York who tried to impose his authority over independent Vermonters.  Ethan Allen (of Green Mountain Boys fame) is reported to have shot him with buckshot (not fatally) and chased him away with the cry…the gods of the valley are not the gods of the hills.” Although today we clearly need to trade with those outside of our region, it would be good to know just how much food are able to grow for ourselves in New England.

Toward that end, the Amherst Agricultural and Conservation Commissions invited Dr. Brian Donahue, Professor of Environmental History at Brandeis University (and a local farmer himself), to speak to a group of local residents about what might be possible.  Professor Donahue shared his estimates of how much food could be realistically produced in New England.  He thought we could grow:

  • Almost all of our vegetables
  • Half of our fruit
  • All of our  dairy products
  • Most of our beef and lamb
  • Most of our pastured pork, poultry and eggs

The following 25-minute video clip from his presentation provides more detail:

Can we grow more food in New England?

Professor Donahue said that although this was possible, it was by no means going to be easy.  If we want to grow more of our own food in New England, we have some work to do!

Local Responsibility

Ben Hewett’s book “The Town that Food Saved” tells the story of Hardwick, Vermont, a community that took responsibility for its own future.  While Amherst, MA may be a more cosmopolitan community, local food has an important place in our history and culture as well.  Our town emblem for example, is “the book and the plow”.   These symbols represent our respective commitment to higher education (we have 3 colleges in town) and farming (we are proud of our agricultural roots).  While this partnership is tested from time to time (as UMass faculty sometimes deride our history as a “cow college,” and farmers at times may laugh among themselves about the “eggheads” on campus), our success as a healthy community depends on mutual respect for both of these traditions.  This partnership is one of the strengths of our town and a foundation upon which we are trying to build a vibrant community-based food system.

To build a more vibrant local food system, town government, the colleges and community organizations need to take more responsibility.

Here are a few ideas to consider, based on a few of our experiences in Amherst:

Local government might:

Colleges and universities can help by:

Community organizations might:

As an example of a community-led project, a study commissioned by our neighboring town, Feed Northampton, proposes a public investment in food hubs that might provide communal food processing, packaging, cold storage and redistribution.  It might also include a slaughter facility, a community kitchen for processing vegetables, a maple sugar boiler, a cider press,  and a flour mill.  And residents of Sedgwick, Maine recently voted to adopt a Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinance, setting a precedent for other towns looking to preserve small-scale farming and food processing.  If we are going to have a more robust local agriculture, we need to take more responsibility for creating that vision ourselves.

I believe that we must work together to build more resilience into a food system that is dominated by global corporations, vulnerable to collapse in the industrial world, and already in collapse in many developing countries (as evidenced by recent unrest) by growing more food locally.

However if  your own town government, local organizations and colleges fail to provide leadership, it is up to “average” citizens to lead the way.  If we “start parade” the local leaders will gladly jump up in front and wave our “local foods”  flag!  My next blog will examine personal responsibility for helping to create a vibrant community-based food system and ask the question, “so how do I help?”

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For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.  And for those of you from Amherst, please send me your favorite public initiatives to promote local food to add to my list for a future blog.

The future of food; dealing with collapse

Did you know that almost one billion people are hungry – another one billion are chronically malnourished –  and still another one billion others are overweight due to poor eating habits?

This is a global food crisis!

Last week, I explored the root causes of this crisis.  Isn’t it strange to think that the structural cause of the food crisis is actually the industrial food system itself!  As fossil fuel becomes increasingly expensive, the system that is so dependent on petroleum for fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation technology, packaging and shipping, is unraveling at the seams and triggering political unrest.

But before you accuse me of being one of those “door and gloom” bloggers, I think there are realistic solutions to this crisis (especially for food exporting countries like the U.S.).  Other aspects of industrial societies are likely to experience more severe disruption than the food supply as oil prices rise.  This is at least partly because there are steps that individuals and local communities can take to respond to increasing food prices and potential shortages.  Today’s blog post examines some of those steps.

Last week I made the bold claim that we need to think creatively about;

  1. tax incentives for small, integrated farms committed to selling within their own community,
  2. public investment to support bioregional food systems (within a specific foodshed),
  3. changes in zoning regulations to support the “homegrown food revolution”and
  4. education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, community self-sufficiency, and local farming.

These social structures are needed to help us build much-needed resilience into the current industrial food system, which is vulnerable to collapse in the industrial world and already in collapse in many developing countries.  It is time to take action!

Of course the skeptic in me still wants to ask “how likely are those of us who are well-fed (perhaps overfed)  to take action“?  Evan D. G. Fraser and Andrew Rimas, in their book Empires of Food: Feast Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, state that we are unlikely to get serious about a new food system until we have “a public outcry for tax incentives directed at promoting sustainable agriculture.”  Are you willing to cry out?

In previous posts, I wrote that we need to shift our way of thinking before we are likely to create those necessary social structures.  But until we can imagine a future different from the past, it is unlikely we will see such a shift of thinking.  Imagination is key.

Lots of people today are interested in talking about solutions.  We are planning a public event in my hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts that might be an example.  This sort of event is not difficult to organize.  There are good resources and models within the Transition Towns movement and some communities have done their own research, such as Feed Northampton.  The important thing right now is to imagine a future different from the past, because peak oil changes EVERYTHING.

So, drawing from the experience of others (and my own imagination), here are some ideas to consider that might be applied to your own community:

  1. If you live in an urban area, consider growing food on rooftops, especially of public buildings which may have large flat expanses of roof.  This not only produces food but makes heating and cooling the building less expensive.  Look to re-configure parking lots with raised beds such as the organiponicos in Cuba.
  2. If you live in a suburban area, tear up that lawn and just grow food now! Don’t forget to consider hens, chickens and rabbits for meat, perhaps a milking goat, and bees!
  3. If you are in a rural area, ask if there are more human food crops that can be grown.  Much of the farmland in New England, for example, is still used to produce hay (some for cows, but much for riding horses).  Is this the best use of farm land?
  4. And no matter where you live, think about ways your community can make food farming a more attractive lifestyle.  Farmers (especially those who don’t own land) struggle with the economics of a food system that keeps food artificially cheap.  If we want more local food, we may need to help these farms compete more effectively within the global food system.  The Feed Northampton report, for example, proposes a public investment in food hubs that might provide communal food processing, packaging, cold storage and redistribution.  It might also include a slaughter facility, a community kitchen for processing vegetables, a maple sugar boiler, a cider press,  and a flour mill.

We need to begin by imagining possibilities and then get to work.  There are plenty of examples of ways in which you can get involved in creating a sustainable food system.  Think about:

1. Slow Food

2. Fair Trade

3. Bioregionalism

3. Public commitment to human right to a nutritious diet

4. Public commitment to insure food producers earn a living wage

5. Zoning laws that allow urban and suburban families to raise their own food (including animals) – a right to survival law

6. Decent wages and training for farm labor

7. Education for young farm managers

8. Research into appropriate technologies

9. Programs to bring local food into the workplace

10.  And of course, grow our own!

These are a beginning.  Lets dream together about the world we want to create….. and then lets get to work!

What suggestions do you have for creating a more sustainable food system?  Please post them below.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. If you are interested in taking college courses in Sustainable Food and Farming online this summer, check us out at UMass.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

Is the modern industrial food system "in collapse"?

Cassandra (of Greek mythology) the daughter of King Priam, foresaw the destruction of Troy by the invading Greeks (who of course had come to retrieve  Helen).  Cassandra warned her father of the impending disaster – but no one believed her!  It seems the God Apollo, who had given her the gift of prophecy, had also cursed her by preventing anyone from believing her.

Frustrating, huh?

I suspect Evan Fraser and Andrew Rimias might understand her frustration.  Who are they you ask?

Well, they are just two of the modern Cassandras, who are trying to help us wake up to the impending collapse of the modern industrial food system.  But it seems Apollo is still up to his old tricks….. because based on our behavior, it seems we are still ignoring the warnings.

We didn’t listen to Tristan Stuart who reminded us in Waste, that “infinite abundance is an illusion.”  Nor did we hear Carolyn Steel, who claimed in Hungry City “our food system is no more secure, ethical or sustainable than Rome’s was.”  And Julian Cribb’s new book about food, The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It, is also likely to go unheeded.

Its all just too depressing, isn’t it.  The “foodies” seem to be too wrapped up in what Fraser and Rimas call “the New Gluttony,” which, in their words “turn food into fashion – and undermines the critical danger we face.” Of course, most people don’t think much about the food system and just take the current food system for granted.

If you are one of the majority of people who seem to believe that somehow the food in the grocery store will always be plentiful, will always be cheap, and somehow is actually good for you – you should read Empires of Food.   Most astute observers of the modern industrial food and farming system recognize that the industrial food system is harmful to people, society and the earth….  and is vulnerable to collapse.  Not convinced, well read what some of the experts are saying…..

Or listen to this 11-year old kid!

I suspect I’ll be accused of being “alarmist” by some readers who would prefer not to be disturbed.  But when there is danger in our path, an alarm is exactly what is needed.  A billion people hungry, another billion malnourished, and another billion ‘overfed’ sounds like a problem.   Students often ask how do we wake up those people living in denial.

Personally, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to convince people that a system built on cheap fossil fuel is at risk in a peak oil economy.  I won’t argue that continued erosion of the natural resources upon which our high level of productivity is based –  is a prelude to disaster.  Nor do I like to point out (especially to people who are just not interested) that a system that allows a few large corporations to control the food supply is fundamentally unjust.

I’m actually much more interested in working on solutions; like tax incentives for small, integrated local farms, public investment in bioregional food production and distribution systems, changes in zoning laws which support the “homegrown food revolution”, and public education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, and community self-sufficiency.

Relocalization may not replace the system of international trade which presently dominates the global food economy.  But there are surely things we should consider to help us build much-needed resilience into a food system in crisis today in the poorer nations – and on the verge of collapse in the industrialized world.

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Next week’s blog will explore some of these solutions.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.


Is Walmart’s version of sustainable agriculture really sustainable?

In case you missed it, the Walmart Corporation announced last week that they intend to make a major investment in sustainable agriculture.  Most of the blogs, Facebook posts and Tweets seem to be pretty excited!  Please forgive me if I reserve judgment and explore this news a bit before I celebrate.

Perhaps its fortuitous that I’ve finished a 7-part series on sustainable food and farming here on World.edu, just in time to use these ideas to help us explore the question “is Walmart’s version of sustainable agriculture really sustainable?”

One of my earlier posts presented the generally well-accepted idea that sustainable agriculture needs to consider at least three perspectives or goals:

  1. economic vitality
  2. social equity or justice
  3. environmental integrity

At first glance the Walmart announcement seems to address these three perspectives.  In fact their own three-part sustainability goal statement is pretty similar to the version above.

  • To address economic vitality, the Walmart plan calls for increasing the income of small and medium farmers by 10 to 15 percent.
  • To address the need for social equity, Walmart will double its sales of locally purchased food products and also insure that half of the farmers trained worldwide will be women.
  • To address environmental integrity Walmart will train 1 million farmers and farm workers in “sustainable farming practices.”

This all sounds great!  But lets dig a little deeper.  When I introduced the 3-part goal, I suggested the way in which the goals are presented in relationship to each other matters.

The traditional venn diagram on the left presents the 3 goals as competing. While they may overlap in the middle, each goal is “pulling in its own direction.”  It is a safe bet that Walmart will only invest in social equity and environmental integrity when it also serves the economic bottom line.  While there is nothing wrong with making money, a truly sustainable agriculture needs to do better than “serving environmental and social interests only when it makes a profit.”  A corporation must place profit above other interests, but the rest of us have a responsibility to think more inclusively.

For example, the investment in local food may save the corporation money currently used to pay for  transportation, and thus allow lower prices for the consumer.  This is what Walmart does best – keep retail prices low.  As the price of oil increases over time (which it surely must), locally grown food will provide an even greater advantage.  Again, not a bad thing.  But dealing with small and mid-sized farms will give the corporation tremendous leverage in setting wholesale prices.   Currently, small and mid-sized farmers realize a greater return than some wholesale shippers  either because they are growing specialty products or because they can sell directly to customers.  Both of these advantages will be lost once they start selling to the corporation.  First, any additional profit realized by reducing transportation costs will likely accrue to Walmart rather than the farmer.  Second, specialty items which formerly returned a high price will become “commodified” by the corporation, thus driving down profits.  The consumer will benefit from cheaper food, but the producer will lose over time.  This is how the commodity system always works!

Further, according to Executive Vice President Leslie Dach, the plan to train farmers in sustainable practices will specifically help them “with the optimum amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizers, and to grow the crops the market will buy.” This sounds like the sort of contractual relationship that the Monsanto Corporation requires of anyone using their seed.  If you want to farm for Walmart, you may need to do it their way.  What will this do to the entrepreneurial approach farmers who “think sustainably” have brought to their work?  To me, this sounds like a recipe for standardized farming practices which will reduce the ability of small and mid-sized farm managers to experiment with practices that show a return on investment to good management.

The standardization of farming practices and products by the corporation will most likely reduce creativity – a necessary ingredient in the quest for agricultural sustainability.

Maybe I’m just too cynical?  Perhaps Walmart will be different than other major corporations and truly demonstrate a long-term commitment to social change and environmental quality?  We can hope!

Lets now look at a more holistic relationship among the 3 sustainability goals.  In the model on the left, the goals are presented as a nested hierarchy in which a healthy economy is totally dependent upon a healthy society, which itself is dependent on a healthy environment.  In this living systems model, we look to the outer system (environment) for purpose and the inner system (economy) for function.

The reason we care about economic vitality is to insure that social equity and environmental integrity are served.

This model is based on an ecological design, rather than a corporate worldview.  While it might be a bit much to ask Walmart to consider this perspective, this is the perspective I suggest we use to evaluate success in sustainable food and farming systems!

This holistic perspective makes the economy a servant of society, not the other way around.  If we apply this perspective to the Walmart announcement, we might begin to wonder if its truly as good as it sounds.  For example, a truly sustainable agriculture would do all it can to keep money circulating in local communities.  The purpose of the corporation however is to make money for shareholders, thus “exporting profits” from the farming community.  This is the industrial agriculture system, and I’m not sure the corporation can do anything other than support this system.  For example, here is how they buy and sell lettuce….

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Perhaps we should ask for more than locally grown and inexpensive food.  Perhaps we should be working for a greater vision of food sovereignty.  The vision statement for the National Family Farm Coalition for example states, “we envision empowered communities everywhere working together democratically to advance a food system that ensures health, justice and dignity for all.  Farmers, farm workers, ranchers, and fishers will have control over their lands, water, seeds and livelihoods and all people will have access to healthy, local, and delicious food.” That seems to me to be a vision worth working toward!

Lets look more closely at an ecological framework for sustainable agriculture.  Another post states that sustainable farming systems need to play by “Mother Nature’s rules” which are:

  1. Use current solar income
  2. Cycle everything possible (waste=food)
  3. Enhance biological diversity

To give Walmart credit, several components of their plan focus specifically on aspects of the first two rules.  For example there is a significant effort to reduce waste in the food chain, surely a good thing.  It would be better still if efforts were made to return food waste to the soil through a composting system (waste = food).

Further, the overarching sustainability guidelines for the corporation claim an intent to move to 100% renewable energy over time.  There is nothing obvious in the sustainable agriculture plans however to address this goal.  But maybe that will come later.

Finally, I wonder about the corporation’s commitment to biological diversity.  The need to standardize practices and products will not likely leave much room for mixed cropping, integrated plant and animal systems, or polyculture and permaculture systems based on ecological principles.

Of course I may be wrong.  Walmart’s announcement claims their commitment to sustainable agriculture will “help small and medium sized farmers expand their businesses, get more income for their products, and reduce the environmental impact of farming, while strengthening local economies and providing customers around the world with long-term access to affordable, high-quality, fresh food.” Perhaps……

What do you think?  Is this good news?

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